The cashless tolling ‘Catch-22’

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“Toll: $1.50” said the first sign as we took the exit to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The signs continued with “Cash or I-Pass only,” then to the punchline, “Coin only” Uh-oh. (Burma Shave, Boomers?)

Heading back to Rochester from a Center for Governmental Research engagement in Racine, Wis., colleague Paul Bishop and I were stuck. We’d not brought an E-ZPass (which works on the Illinois Tollway, see below). I rarely carry coin in my pockets, although I’ve a stash in my car. Driving a rental, we had three dimes between us.

The Illinois Tollway offered a phone number to call, although we’d passed it before I’d written it down. Left without options, we drove through the “I-Pass” lane. I resolved to record the license plate number of the rental and call later. But I didn’t. Weary after a long day of interviewing and harried by O’Hare traffic, it just slipped my mind.

Now what? We will eventually get a bill from the rental car company, Enterprise in this case. They will charge us the $1.50 toll, any penalty assessed by the Tollway, plus a $14 administrative fee.

Why have we been employing toll collectors?

I’ve long wondered why we continue to pay human beings to stand in a booth for hours on end simply handing out toll tickets. That’s just nuts. Other states dispensed with this idiocy years ago. That’s New York job creation for you.

Collecting cash is more difficult to automate, to be sure. Coin acceptors were widely used when I was driving the Illinois Tollway in the 1970s. Dollar acceptors are more complicated and require more frequent service. Still, the cost of manning a single toll booth 24/7 certainly tops $180,000 per year, assuming annual base salary of $28,000 and a conservative benefits rate of 35 percent. The “bill-acceptor” device costs a few hundred dollars and could be replaced frequently and still save lots of money.

Or we could be allowed to use credit cards. If Rochester Public Market vendors accept credit cards for mango and grouper fillet, surely the Thruway can adapt. With single-year savings nearing $200,000 per booth, the return on investment is surely positive.

Cashless comes of age

And then there’s electronic toll collection. The E-ZPass Interagency Group got its start in 1990. E-ZPass now includes 17 states and 39 agencies and collects $9 billion every year. The system is based on a radio frequency identification transponder. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns the E-ZPass trademark.

Advances in camera technology and computing power have made it possible to read license plates at high speed through automatic number-plate recognition systems. Some toll regimes use ANPR exclusively, although many rely primarily on RFID tags with ANPR as backup for cars without transponders.

Increasingly, toll agencies now save us the ordeal of stopping or slowing at toll plazas to pay. Many sections of the Illinois system simply read the RFID tag at highway speeds, although they offer separate lanes for cash customers.

These innovations are gradually being applied in New York. The bridge formerly known as the Tappan Zee (now the Mario Cuomo) has gone cashless, eliminating the toll plazas that slowed traffic, particularly during peak New York City commuting periods, as have the major New York City bridges and tunnels. The Hudson Valley toll barriers at Harriman, Yonkers, Spring Valley and New Rochelle have also gone cashless. Closer to home, the Grand Island Bridge has also adopted this approach.

What does this mean for rentals?

Integrating cashless tolling with car rental is still pretty clunky. And the rental companies don’t all play fair.

At O’Hare, Enterprise offered us an I-pass for an extra $9.99 per day, all tolls included. As we were just passing through Illinois and spent most of our time in Wisconsin, we elected to pay cash. Had we been driving exclusively in the Chicago area, the offer would have made sense.

When I rented at LaGuardia recently, Enterprise charged a daily rate of $3.95 for transponder rental, with all tolls charged after the fact. That would be a good deal if Enterprise simply passed through the charge from MTA and the Port Authority, as they offer a substantial discount for transponder use. The “off-peak” rate for the George Washington Bridge is $10.50 withan E-ZPass but $15 without. The Queens Midtown Tunnel charges $5.76 each way withan E-ZPass and $8.50 without.

But Enterprise doesn’t simply pass through the charge they pay. They charge renters the cash price—“the regular price”—said the woman I contacted. As of a 2015 report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, most of the rental companies charge customers both a rental fee for the transponder AND the cash toll. I only confirmed the practice with Enterprise.

Hertz has adopted a different approach called PlatePass, usable nationwide for a daily fee of $5.95. Transponders are also available for E-ZPass systems. Expect Hertz to pocket the transponder discount.

I welcome the arrival of cashless tolling—it should save money for taxpayers over time and will significantly reduce congestion on more heavily-traveled roads and bridges. But you need to understand the game and play by the rules or risk owing big fines. And consider bringing your own E-ZPass when renting a car. Contrary to earlier policy, E-ZPass now permits this practice.

2 thoughts on “The cashless tolling ‘Catch-22’

  1. Thanks for tackling this, Kent. I travel to Florida frequently to see my mother and always rent a car. (Turns out Orlando is the world’s largest car-rental market.) Only a *few* Florida highways accept EZPass, but many of the other toll roads accept coins, so I come prepared with a roll of quarters. So far, my decision to decline the car agencies’ transponder rental (Dollar/Thrifty is now charging $10.49/day + tolls!) but I suspect that the large amount of first-time visitors to Florida take the bait. Now, as more Florida highways turn cashless, I’ve investigated buying a portable SunPass, which would involve having to register the license plate of every rental car *before* I leave the airport garage. If the online SunPass is as well-run as EZPass is, I can guess how smoothly and accurately that would work. (sarcasm) Worst of all is how difficult it is to find out which roads have turned cashless since I last visited so that I can avoid them; I’ve conducted a lot of research, and have yet to find that info published. I’ve had to rely on family and friends in Florida to update me — not that they necessarily drive on every highway I might choose. So far, I’ve yet to find a GPS system that distinguishes between cashless and credit card/coin cash highways. My big fear is accidentally entering a cashless highway and, since the transponder is on the car, I’ll pay the transponder fee for the entire rental + the toll + the administrative fee + a pound of flesh.

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